Handling the climate change issue: lesson one. 

Bill Shorten is soon going to need to fend off the inevitable attacks over his decision to introduce an emissions trading scheme (ETS).

The first attack will be over whether this constitutes a tax or not. It will be a difficult argument, given that Joel Fitzgibbon is already on television saying “you can call it a tax if you like.”

Joel Fitzgibbon practising buttoning his lip. Keep up the good work, Joel
Joel Fitzgibbon practising buttoning his lip. Keep up the good work, Joel

It’s very easy to get lost in the semantics so you need to be crystal clear and clowns like Fitzgibbon are certainly not helping. So it is going to be really important that the argument about the nature of taxes and of trading schemes is worked out and everybody in the Labor Party understands it and sticks to it.

But it’s more important not to be fooled by the sucker punch. It’s a political manoeuvre that the Right is particularly adept at using: never argue the big issues, go directly to the detail, confuse and obfusticate. It’s the style that seems to come naturally to Environment Minister Greg Hunt who seems to be making the running on this.

Let’s take the issue of the price electricity. The government has labelled Shorten “Electricity Bill”. It’s clever, it’s glib, it simple and it’s an easy sell. Also an argument that Shorten can’t win. So he shouldn’t get into a fight over issue.

Someone needs to stand up and say: “If we take climate change seriously, we’re going to have to find some way of using less energy, particularly coal-fired energy. What the government will do, is to subsidise a shift to renewable energy to provide it with a price advantage over coal-fired energy. This will inevitably involve costs to many Australians who continue to remain dependent on fossil fuel energy.”

But if you look at the way the Liberal Party is mounting the case for a move towards a 15% GST then there are some interesting and informative lessons to be learned.

The first is to create consensus, particularly external consensus, for the need to change. In this case, the consensus is being formed, albeit tentatively, amongst the State Premiers. Having NSW Premier Mike Baird float the idea was a stroke of genius.

Abbott begins to build consensus on a GST increase
Abbott begins to build consensus on a GST increase

It means that Tony Abbott can wipe his hands of the issue and say “Nothing to do with me, it was Mike’s idea and the other premiers agreed. Anyhow, it’s a state issue so I really should agree with them.”

Now, an increase of the GST to 15% is far from a done deal but the way the political process is being handled is extremely clever and extremely effective. With Labor in power in three states, it should be possible to create the same”consensus” over climate change and in particular the ETS.

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